What is the role of narrative in mobilizing people? Marshall Ganz of Harvard’s Kennedy School starts with Alexis de Tocqueville and tells how he was so impressed with the rich associational life here in the United States, and how participation in associations drove people into relationships with each other, so they could learn about their common interest. Common interest that was the result of learning about each other, not as an aggregation of individual interest – there was a synergistic quality to association. The promise of democracy is an equality of voices for distribution of resources – and while this does not always happen in practice – it does highlight the importance of people coming together with common interest so they can act on it, and thus exerting power. It is crucial that associations are voluntary – they participate not because of coercion.
What makes social movements different from fashion and trends? They are different because they are collective and organized.They are efforts of purposive action, of mobilization, of translation power into action. They are not only about winning the game, but also about changing the rules. They are a hopeful response to conditions being intolerable. They make moral claims. Throughout history, they have been major drivers of political reform.
There is no social movement without leadership. Leadership is to accept responsibility to create conditions that will enable others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty. Key here is uncertainty – there is no leadership needed if things are routinized and going their way – leadership is needed when things break down.
There is the idea that social movements are about one charismatic leader that everybody follows. That is far more myth than truth. Leadership does require a critical density. Marshall believes that command and control organizations require less leadership, as opposed to what he calls commitment organizations, where distributive leadership is crucial. Social movements are models of distributive leadership. What they do? They do five tasks: 1) bring people together around shared values; 2) bring people together in the form of relational commitments – people make commitments to each other; 3) it provides structure for collaboration; 4) it provides strategies – to turn power into outcome and 5) there has to be action on the ground.
Social movements exist in the face of injustice, but there is also a requirement for hope, otherwise no action is possible. People just don’t act and make change without hope. They also don’t act without provocation – people often remember the dream part in Martin Luther King’s speech, but forget the nightmare part he talked about. It is when nightmare and dream come together that action happens.
But what has narrative got to do with this? The subject of narrative is agency. The core mission of narrative is to teach us how to exercise agency. Agency is exercising choice in the face of uncertainty. It’s in conditions when we don’t know, when things are unclear, in novel times of challenges – that’s when agency matters, that’s when we can exercise choice, which is both exhilarating and frightening.
Narrative teaches us how we become agents. The exercise of intentionality occurs under certain emotional conditions – we don’t begin to exercise agency until we experience anxiety, when we have to deal with something but we don’t know how. Anxiety causes us to pay attention.
In the context of social movements, urgency and anger are often stand-ins for anxiety. To get attention, to provoke indignation. How we respond is the next question. If we respond in fear, we will withdraw, freeze, strike back, in general we will not have productive responses. On the other hand, if we are in a hopeful state, we will explore, get more information, learn how to deal with this novelty. So it is crucial whether we experience anxiety from a fearful or hopeful state. Whether we experience it from a state or alienation or empathy, from self-doubt or confidence. Emotive conditions are what facilitate intentionality (Marshall makes a reference to George Marcus’ book, the Sentimental Citizen). Narrative does the emotional work to exercise agency. This is especially critical, when conditions of uncertainty are great or when your agency is in question.
Plot, what initiates plot? Not surprising, it is uncertainty. What makes a plot is the unexpected. That’s when we get engaged – the reason why we get engaged is because we as agents, as human beings, the texture of our being is to cope with uncertainty – big or small. A plot recreates this.
The protagonist allows us to emphatically identify – we therefore get emotive affect, so that it is not just conceptual content – but instead we enter the affective reality of the moment, thus we can learn affectively, not just cognitively. Stories teach not just the head, but through the heart. The moral lesson that comes out – is through experience, and it is not just conceptually. We use stories – to make a point – to cause something to happen.
Stories are not true or false, but they work or not. The affective meaning you try to convey occurs in different kinds of settings. In the context of social movements: they are about creating agency where there have been none. Change does not occur without risk or uncertainty.
Public stories: Moses. Moses asked: Why me? Who are these people? Can’t this wait? Really, right now? Marshall compares this to the first 7 minutes of Obama’s speech – explaining why he has been called, where he comes from, choices his parents made that influenced him. He remind what we as a nation are called to and confronts us with challenge of action required now – through a series of small stories – and couples the challenge with hopefulness so people know what to do.
Stories are about reflection on choices one has made in the past. Retrieving these moments so listeners can experience the significance these stories had for you. Going through specific episodes – this is episodic memory rather than semantic memory – and it’s enhanced by visualization, because it raises affective reality. If you are in public life, and you don’t tell your own story, well, see what happened to John Kerry.
The story of us – is about what constitutes collective identity, and is a shared experience. Social movement leaders tell stories of us, and often draw on established stories to do so. Social movements are not simply a set of relations, nor strategies, nor a set of practices or actions, not just structures – they are narratives. They do the work to craft new identity – and are transcending – they are not just about changing the world, but also changing ourselves – what connects the two is narrative.